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Authorize the Federal Education Research Enterprise to Innovate

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Authorize the Federal Education Research Enterprise to Innovate

November 6, 2023

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National test scores show that American students have fallen further behind in the classroom after widespread public school closures during the pandemic. After already providing $190 billion in emergency federal K-12 funding to help schools during the pandemic, Congress should consider new, fiscally responsible ways for Washington to help American students recover.

One promising strategy is to reform and increase the return on investment of federally funded research and development projects to directly help teachers and children in the classroom improve how students learn.

This year, Congress provided more than $1 billion in funding for education R&D activities, including at least $651 million for the Department of Education and more than $1.1 billion for the National Science Foundation’s STEM Education Research Directorate. Congress has been funding this kind of research for more than half a century.

But there’s little to show for the money. Recent analyses of the history of federal education R&D activities and related activities focused on STEM and computer science education reveal a low return on investment. The history is full of missed opportunities, including the K-12 education sector's failure to implement effective instructional methods that were identified by federally funded research. In the area of STEM education, a lack of analysis or basic transparency about what is being learned through federally funded education R&D indicates an urgent need for improvement.

One promising model for federal education R&D comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). If asked, few teachers or students could probably point to an example of a federally funded education R&D initiative that has actually helped them in the classroom. But most teachers and students would be familiar with technologies funded by federal R&D, such as the internet, GPS, the computer mouse, and Apple’s personal assistant Siri, all of which were funded and developed in part by DARPA. Unlike traditional education R&D, DARPA has been involved in funding high-risk, high-reward research and development projects, some of which have fundamentally changed the way that people live in the 21st century.

The good news is that these kinds of R&D breakthroughs could be coming to the K-12 education sector. In 2022, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Rep. Brian Fitzpatick (R-PA) introduced the New Essential Education Discoveries (NEED) Act. The bipartisan legislation would have authorized the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to create a new research center: the National Center for Advanced Development in Education, modeled after DARPA.

With the Senate HELP Committee planning to take up the reauthorization of the Education Sciences and Reform Act during the 118th Congress, Congress may have an opportunity to reform the Department of Education’s enterprise, including by adding an ARPA-like entity within IES and considering legislative language from the NEED Act from last Congress.

IES Director Mark Schneider recently called on Congress to pass the NEED Act and authorize this innovative approach. “The nation can’t spend the next decade diagnosing this problem and letting students fall further behind,” Schneider reasoned. “NCADE is our chance to show that we take learning seriously and that we aren’t willing to shrug off the last few years of declining educational progress as a tragedy that will be fixed by employing business-as-usual methods.”

Congress has already given IES $30 million to fund DARPA-like projects. Schneider has described how the new funding has already spurred him to adopt a “more applied, ‘use-driven’ strategy” for R&D investments.

Congress was right to give IES this new authority. But as my colleagues Zach Graves and Robert Bellafiore recently explained, successful implementation will depend on several factors. A new ARPA for education must strengthen the link between R&D findings and implementation; focus on temporary projects with clear timelines; and focus on developing new tools to help students, parents, and teachers improve the way that children learn. Importantly, institutional design will be critical. Congress and IES must provide a new ARPA for education with both resources and independence from the bureaucratic pressures of the Department of Education. Moreover, authorizing this authority in statute, potentially through the Education Sciences and Reform Act reauthorization process, would allow lawmakers to ensure that IES is accountable to Congress and American taxpayers.

Fiscal conservatives rightly concerned about the federal deficit, and rising national debt could require any new funding and authorities for an ARPA-like entity within IES to be offset by funding reduction and program terminations from within the federal education R&D enterprise. For example, lawmakers could look to trim or terminate the Regional Educational Laboratories program, which has been the focus of criticism for decades and currently receives $57 million per year.

The challenges facing American students in the classroom are too great for the federal government to squander its investment in R&D intended to improve K-12 education. As Congress considers reforming the Education Sciences Reform Act, lawmakers should expand upon IES’s new authorities to support innovative education R&D projects and spur long-overdue innovation in public education.

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